Saturday, February 28, 2009

Daring Bakers challenge - chocolate valentino cake

Ah, February, the month of love. And the Daring Bakers rose to the occasion, with hosts Wendy and Dharm nominating a decadent flourless chocolate valentino cake as our project.

The valentino cake, inspired by Malaysia’s “most flamboyant food ambassador”, Chef Wan, comes from his book Sweet Treats. It is a simple composition of three ingredients: chocolate, butter and eggs. Part of the wondrous chemistry of cooking is that these three ingredients can be transformed, through melting, mixing and baking, into a dense, fudgy cake with a similar texture to a brownie. The finished cake tastes exactly like the chocolate that you use, so it is wise to use the best-quality chocolate (and indeed the other ingredients) that you can afford.

To make the cake, melt together 450g of chocolate and 150g of butter. Separate five eggs; add the egg yolks to the chocolate mix, then beat the egg whites to peaks and fold into the chocolate batter, pour into a tin and bake. The recipe called for the cake to be baked at 190 degrees for about 25 minutes but my cake took about 35 minutes. It is not a particularly attractive cake when unmoulded, with a cracked, misshapen top, but this is one cake where the attraction is in the taste, not the looks. I used dark Belgium chocolate for the cake, as I love its deep, rich, bittersweet tones.

Wendy and Dharm gave us the option of making vanilla ice-cream to their recipes, or choosing a recipe of our own. I elected to make coffee ice-cream, as coffee and dark chocolate is one of my favourite combinations. I made a basic custard, whisking egg yolks, caster sugar and a smidgen of cornflour together, before adding scalded milk and stirring over heat until thick. I made a cup of strong espresso coffee which I cooled and added to the custard. Once chilled, I added thick cream and churned it all in my ice-cream machine.

We don't really do anything special for Valentine's Day, but it is Adam's birthday a few days later, so I made this for the family gathering. The cake and ice-cream both received a rapturous reception. A heart-shaped tin is required to make a "proper" valentino cake but I don't own one, so made this cake in a round cake tin and served it in small wedges with a scoop of coffee ice-cream to the side. The cake was very rich and the coffee ice-cream provided a perfect foil. This is a rich dessert cake that requires an accompaniment; it is too rich and dark for afternoon tea, or to have on its own. The original recipe suggested serving the cake with whipped cream but this would be too insipid for my liking; I think it needs a strong, but complementary, flavour to match its assertive tones.

I really liked this cake and it is a simple, but impressive, dessert. The only drawback is the expense of the cake, as it requires a lot of chocolate. But it is worth splashing out if you want a grand chocolate finale to your dinner party. Thanks to Wendy and Dharm for this fun challenge!

The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE's blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef.
We have chosen a Chocolate Valentino cake by Chef Wan; a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Dharm and a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Wendy as the challenge.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Tampering with tradition

Today I bought my first hot cross bun for this year. Easter doesn't seem close but Lent has started, so I figure I'm entitled to have a hot cross bun now. Even though they've been in the shops for weeks, I've resisted. It's unseemly how quickly hot cross buns flood into supermarkets after Christmas, as if the supermarket conglomerates and marketing whizzes can't wait for us to get over one festival before focusing on the next.

I love hot cross buns but I'm a stickler for tradition. Some plump sultanas and a hint of rich spice are what make hot cross buns special for me. But today I've discovered that the hot cross bun has undergone a dazzling makeover to bring it into the modern era. I was offered the choice of the "traditional" (how dowdy and dismissive that word sounds when used in this context), the chocolate chip version, or this year's new offering, the mocha hot cross bun.

Why? What marketing guru came up with this idea? If I want chocolate chips, I'll eat a biscuit. If I want coffee, I'll drink it. It may be old-fashioned but I can't see the point in tampering with traditional recipes just for the sake of it. There's nothing wrong with modernising or improving recipes but sometimes the quest for something new or different goes too far. The hot cross bun is not a plain bun, so why the need to cram more ingredients into it? Why not just develop a sweet mocha bun, rather than adding this flavouring to the humble hot cross bun?

Making changes to take account of modern ingredients and tastes is fine but I can't stand meddling for the sake of it. Is offering three types of hot cross buns part of capitalism's never-ending thirst for new, fresh ways to entice us to hand over our cash? Has our modern palate become so jaded that we need sensory overload to awaken it?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

An indulgent breakfast

Pancakes make me happy. They make me especially happy when they are light, fluffy buttermilk pancakes doused in maple syrup and served with crisp, salty bacon on the side. Could there be any better start to the day?

Much as I love them, pancakes are not something I could eat every day. They are special because they are a rare treat. But they must be made well; there's nothing more disappointing than a flat, tasteless, rubbery pancake.

Pancakes, pikelets, crepes, galettes, blinis, hotcakes ... there are many variations on what is essentially a simple mixture of flour, eggs and milk. It can be as simple as a pikelet fresh from the frying pan, slathered in melting butter and a dollop of good raspberry jam, as elegant as a buckwheat blini topped with smoked salmon and creme fraiche, or my favourite indulgent breakfast of buttermilk pancakes as described above. Some of my favourite breakfasts around Melbourne are based on pancakes: ricotta hotcakes with lemon curd and strawberries at Replete Providore in Hawthorn, or ricotta hotcakes with lavender ice-cream and poached pears (as served at the Rathdowne St Food Store). And I have very fond memories of eating galettes with cider in Brittany in France. I was almost tempted to bring home my very own galette pan until its heavy weight put me off. Fraus in North Melbourne do a perfectly acceptable version though.

Shrove Tuesday is always a good excuse for me to make up pancake batter. Adam and I have developed our own Shrove Tuesday tradition of buttermilk pancakes with bacon and maple syrup for breakfast and it's something we look forward to. The ultimate pancake recipe for me is the buttermilk pancakes from Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion and I've written before about how much I love these pancakes. The buttermilk gives the pancakes a light and fluffy texture. They are neither sweet nor savoury but take on the flavours of what you choose to serve with them.

Most importantly, the batter is a simple concoction and can be mostly prepared the night before. The next morning, you only need to whip up eggwhites and fold into the batter, so these pancakes can be just as easily prepared on a workday as they can on a lazy weekend morning.

Go ahead and indulge yourself, whether it's Shrove Tuesday or not; it's worth it.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Cookbook review: In the Kitchen

Thanks to a combination of Christmas presents and bookshop gift vouchers, I've been able to add to my cookbook collection. I didn't need to add to my already burgeoning collection but I just couldn't resist some of the new titles on offer. I'll be reviewing my new cookbooks over the coming weeks. The first one is In The Kitchen by Allan Campion and Michele Curtis.

Allan and Michele are well-known to Melburnians, with The Foodies Diary and The Foodies Guide to Melbourne being just two of their regular publications. I've never bought the diary but I have several previous editions of the Foodies Guide and it's a great treasure-trove of information. If you need to know where to source food items, whether it's buttery croissants, unusual Asian vegetables, decadent chocolates or Spanish food stores, this book has all the information you need. It's a great way to make new discoveries and find out places worth crossing town for. It was through this book that I discovered the wonderful Frank's Bakery in Elsternwick, where the sourdough bread is a perennial favourite of mine.

I also have a copy of Campion and Curtis's Everyday Cooking, which has had plenty of use and can always be relied upon to provide a recipe when I'm running short of inspiration or need a quick but tasty weeknight meal.

When I saw In The Kitchen, which has more than 1000 recipes and weighs more than 2kg, I thought I really couldn't justify another cookbook, especially one of this size. But when I flicked through the book, I found that there was a recipe on practically every page that I wanted to try, so of course the book came home with me.

The chapters are divided into food types or meals for easy reference; for example brunch, starters, soups, everyday dinners, curries and tagines, cakes and lunchbox ideas. Each recipe is accompanied by a breezy little note that explains the recipe and perhaps a hint to its provenance, gives some reassuring comments about the difficulty or otherwise of the recipe, or provides alternative ingredients to jazz up or dress down the original recipe. I like the personal and reassuring tone of the book, which will comfort less-assured cooks, as it feels like a good friend is standing there with you in the kitchen and guiding you through the recipe.

Many of the dishes use everyday ingredients found in a well-stocked larder and many are both family-friendly and suitable for quick weeknight dinners. There's also more glamorous recipes for dinner parties or special occasions but, again, many of these recipes don't use specialist or unusual ingredients but rely on good lateral thinking or the pairing of complementary ingredients (such as dates with blue cheese).

So far, I've trialled several of the cake recipes and the one-pot chocolate cake recipe is alone worth the price of the book. The introduction to the recipe says "This has to be the best, most simple chocolate cake in the whole world" and I agree. Only a pot, a wooden spoon and a cake tin are required to make this fudgy cake, which is elevated above everyday status with the addition of good strong coffee. The flavours of this cake improve with age and it is a cake that I know I'll make again and again. The friends who were my guinea-pigs when I tried this cake were so delighted with it that they immediately requested the recipe.

I've also made the gingerbread cake, which is a cinch to whip up and is ready within 30 minutes, making it perfect for an unplanned morning or afternoon tea. The double chocolate chip biscuits satisfy any sweet cravings without an unnecessary trip to the supermarket (as the double chocolate hit comes from chocolate chips and cocoa, rather than chocolate chips and melted chocolate).

From the savoury chapters, I can report that the southern fried chicken is easy and delicious, with none of the fat or greasy skin that you would get from the commercial fast-food version, and that the oven chips are to die for.

I've bookmarked many other recipes to try, particularly stews and soups for when the weather turns colder. In The Kitchen is full of many recipes that will become classics in your own kitchen because the delicious final result belies the simplicity of the technique. We don't need to be highly trained chefs to eat well and these recipes will help launch novice cooks on their way, as well as providing more experienced cooks with plenty of recipes to extend their repertoire. I highly recommend this cookbook.

In The Kitchen is published by Hardie Grant Books.